[ilds] The Tree of Idleness

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Thu Jul 19 09:46:52 PDT 2007

What a lovely reading!

I must admit that my love of poetry dwells on its ability to mean more 
than one thing, and that's how I read the "suppose" of that first line.  
Its grammatical function in the sentence is clear, but why give the 
delay of the line break (for the eye if not the ear, I suppose), 
allowing the reader to have something more from one reading.  This is a 
trick Durrell employs repeatedly in his poetry.  The "I suppose" seems 
to float there as some kind of phrase in apposition, allowing itself by 
the absence of commas to be tied to three potential structures with a 
comma preceding it, proceeding it, or surrounding it.  I want all three 
to coexist, but I suppose we've already established that I always want 
the incommensurable...  In fact, the unexpected caesuras in the poem 
strike me as a pressing trait, perhaps reflecting the incompleteness of 
the missing person whose absence bruises and stains the surrounding 

As for the bananas, I see it as akin to the Corfiot kumquats (or olives 
for that matter).  How long Durrell could have remained unaware that the 
widely spread species was non-indigenous I do not know, but with 
Theodore Stephanides (a chunk of his correspondence is at Nanterre) as a 
friend, I suspect he would have figured it out eventually.  It's a wider 
debate, and one probably not important to our discussion here, but even 
if Durrell didn't know about the transplanted banana, isn't it an 
all-the-more perfect image?  Chalk it up to a Freudian parapraxis or 
blind luck, but I'm glad it's there.

Also, now that we have a better sense of the likely time frame, I should 
point out something for the printing.  In the _Collected Poems_, Jay 
Brigham talked Durrell into retaining the dedications for his poems, 
though they eventually went missing through reprints of the book, as did 
the columnar notes for "Cities, Plains, People."  This was a very rich 
period for Durrell's poetry, which I think generally declined by the 
70s.  We've not had enough biographical context for the poems, and I 
would like to see more (hint...), but I also think a part of Durrell's 
poetic craft rested on his ability to take the intensely personal and 
recast it in a manner of broader sensibilities, experience, and style.  
I like to compare Durrell to Keats, and like Keats, that biographical 
timeline is crucial, but the poems are crafted to work independently of 
it as well.

And last but not least: "No."  I like this approach Michael offers 
through memory's springs.  It makes me think of the fine contrast 
between the urban and rural in _Justine_ or the role of memory and time 
in _Prospero's Cell_.  Yet, like the rest of the poem, that strong break 
and pause in the reading makes me pause as well.  This is the turning 
point in the poem, rest on that "No."  All the conjecture is rejected, 
and the most recent conjecture is his resting point between two lives 
tied to a woman's wanting and being haunted by that bruising stain when 
he is reborn into a new life.  He cannot escape the memory of what has 
passed nor can that memory live on endless: he must recall his pains and 
still die.

Although, the village does not remember.  It simply continues to be.

I don't think I can add anything to the collection of objects, which 
Michael points out.  I wonder how often this happens in Durrell's 
works?  I know it's still there right through the _Avignon Quintet_, but 
I never thought to make notes on it before now.  A very rich poem indeed 
-- I'm beginning to wish I could teach the poems next year, but unless 
we can make him Irish, there isn't a course I can tuck him into...


Michael Haag wrote:
> The Tree of Idleness does seem to be one of those poems where Durrell 
> is surveying the whole of his life.  James points to the connection 
> between the idleness of this poem and the 'perfect idleness' of Cities, 
> Plains and People, an earlier resume of his existence.  Charles' remark 
> that this poem is 'a trauma case' strikes me as being what this poem is 
> about.
> When Durrell writes 'I shall die one day I suppose', he is not 
> supposing that he will die one day, rather the supposing refers to 
> where he will die:
> 'I shall die one day I suppose / In this old Turkish house I inhabit'.  
> This is Durrell still in his early days on Cyprus.  When exactly the 
> poem was written, I do not know, but the bound volume bearing the title 
> The Tree of Idleness of which this poem is a part was published in 
> March, I think, 1955.  So the poem was written on Cyprus in 1953 or 
> 1954.  Durrell did not take up his government post until the summer of 
> 1954, and EOKA violence did not erupt until 1 April 1955.  This poem 
> does not appear to have been written under the cloud of those political 
> events which gave rise to the poem Bitter Lemons.
> Durrell's sentiment about dying there in that house in that village, 
> the village of Bellapaix, brings to mind a letter he wrote to Henry 
> Miller on 20 November 1953 (see Durrell-Miller Letters 273-4) in which 
> he says 'I insist on dying along this holy and pre-Xian shore'.  He is 
> referring to the Mediterranean.   Durrell had arrived in Cyprus earlier 
> that year and must have felt relieved, after Belgrade, and before that 
> Argentina, to be on the shores of the Mediterranean again.  He has 
> returned to that place where he feels at home, even where he felt 
> reborn.
> Bananas do grow in Cyprus and Greece, and they grow in India.  They are 
> not indigenous to any of those countries.  I do not see that Durrell is 
> making a political point here.
> My attention is caught by the lines, 'Will I be more or less dead / 
> Than the village in memory's dispersing / Springs ...?'  Again, I doubt 
> that this has anything to do with James' reference to 'rising civil 
> strife' as there was as yet no significant strife.  Instead it reminds 
> me of Durrell equating death with loss of memory, or equating memory 
> with life, which is one of his themes in Nunquam.  The word 'No' in the 
> poem is immediately explained: 'No: the card-players in tabs of shade / 
> Will play on'; life in the village will continue, even as 'the aerial 
> springs / [will] Hiss', that is memory will be dispersed.  It is as 
> though individual memory, and individual lives, will pass, but the 
> greater existence, the Mediterranean existence along 'this holy shore' 
> will continue, and Durrell finds some comfort in planting his body 
> there and being part of that.
> So what about the trauma that Charles mentions?  I do not want to get 
> into this much, but the giveaway for me is the last line of the first 
> stanza, 'On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose'.  Like Durrell's other 
> objects, for example the rings, the black eye patch, in Justine, they 
> cry of meaninglessness when they have no associations, when they are 
> not given a story.
> :Michael
>>             *THE TREE OF IDLENESS [from Collected Poems: 1931-1974
>>             (1985), Faber and Faber]*
>>             I shall die one day I suppose
>>             In this old Turkish house I inhabit:
>>             A ragged banana-leaf outside and here
>>             On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose.
>>             Perhaps a single pining mandolin
>>             Throbs where cicadas have quarried
>>             To the heart of all misgiving and there
>>             Scratches on silence like a pet locked in.
>>             Will I be more or less dead
>>             Than the village in memory's dispersing
>>             Springs, or in some cloud of witness see,
>>             Looking back, the selfsame road ahead?
>>             By the moist clay of a woman's wanting,
>>             After the heart has stopped its fearful
>>             Gnawing, will I descry between
>>             This life and that another sort of haunting?
>>             No: the card-players in tabs of shade
>>             Will play on: the aerial springs
>>             Hiss: in bed lying quiet under kisses
>>             Without signature, with all my debts unpaid
>>             I shall recall nights of squinting rain,
>>             Like pig-iron on the hills: bruised
>>             Landscapes of drumming cloud and everywhere
>>             The lack of someone spreading like a stain.
>>             Or where brown fingers in the darkness move,
>>             Before the early shepherds have awoken,
>>             Tap out on sleeping lips with these same
>>             Worn typewriter keys a poem imploring
>>             Silence of lips and minds which have not spoken.
>>             1955/1955
>>             Author's Note
>>             The title of this poem is taken from the name of the tree
>>             which stands outside Bellapaix Abbey in Cyprus, and which
>>             confers the gift of pure idleness on all who sit under it.
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